Nearly two weeks ago, President Trump gathered reporters at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, to announce his response to the opioid epidemic. With more than 100 Americans dying every day from drug overdoses, Trump declared it was time to take action.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency,” he said. “It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”
The announcement was conspicuously short on details. Declaring a national state of emergency involves more than just a brief statement from the president to the press — there’s a formal process that requires documents to be signed and legal steps to be followed. And that hasn’t happened yet. Trump said he was “going to draw it up,” but a White House spokesman confirmed to VICE News that the paperwork still remains incomplete.
“The president recently instructed his administration to take all appropriate and emergency measures to confront the opioid crisis,” the spokesman said. “Right now these actions are undergoing an expedited legal review.”
This technicality isn’t trivial. Until the formal state of emergency declaration is made, the states and municipalities most affected by the opioid crisis won’t be able to tap into the $1.4 billion federal Disaster Relief Fund. That money is typically used to respond to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, but in this case it could be used to expand drug treatment programs and equip more first responders with the overdose antidote naloxone.
The informal state of emergency declaration follows a pattern for the Trump administration. Much like his recent tweets about banning transgender people from the military or his early executive orders about cracking down on crime, Trump’s opioid gambit has been — at least so far — all flash and no substance, attracting attention without making any major policy changes. On the day of Trump’s announcement in Bedminster, CNN and many other major media outlets ran misleading headlines that suggested the state of emergency had already been made official simply by virtue of Trump’s decree.
Calling the opioid crisis a “national emergency” was something of a surprise move by Trump.
A special White House commission led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recommended that Trump make a formal declaration, but just two days before Trump’s announcement, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the administration already had enough resources available to deal with the opioid crisis without it.
Price noted that previous state of emergency declarations “have been focused on a specific area, a time-limited problem — either an infectious disease or a specific threat to public health,” such as the Zika outbreak or Hurricane Sandy in New York. But there are nearly 30 ongoing national emergencies, with the oldest dating back to 1979.
In addition to freeing up federal funds to combat the opioid crisis, Trump could use the state of emergency to temporarily waive certain rules that restrict access to drug treatment for the uninsured. For instance, Christie’s commission called for Trump to do away with something called the the IMD exclusion, a Medicaid provision that blocks inpatient rehab facilities with 16 beds or more from working with the taxpayer-funded program.
Christie’s press secretary referred a VICE News inquiry about the state of emergency to the White House. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, which provides administrative support to the opioid commission, also directed our questions to the White House, as did FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Christie’s commission mostly advocated for Trump to use the state of emergency to improve access to medically-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. But the lack of specifics surrounding Trump’s unofficial declaration has also raised concerns that it could be used to justify a more draconian response from the criminal justice system. Trump said earlier this month that “strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society.”
“[The state of emergency] could give the administration leverage to push for new sentencing legislation,” Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance told the Washington Post on the day Trump made his announcement. “Or legislation that enhances [drug] penalties or law enforcement response. It could give [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions more leverage to push the agenda that he has been pushing.”
Asked what’s causing the delayed implementation of the state of emergency and when the declaration will be made official, the White House offered nothing concrete beyond saying that Trump is still deciding how to proceed.
“The president is considering not just the emergency authorities outlined in the report [from Christie’s commission,” a White House spokesman said, “but other potential options as well, to ensure we’re doing all that we can to tackle this crisis head on.”